Definitions are key in debates over theology


Issue: "Focus on a family feud," Feb. 27, 1998

The six-page Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement, "The Gift of Salvation," known as ECT II, focuses mainly on seven themes: redemption (it "has been accomplished by Christ's atoning sacrifice"), justification (it "is central to the scriptural account of salvation"), sanctification (it is an ongoing process as believers seek to live in obedience to Christ), assurance of eternal life ("the promise of God in Christ is utterly reliable"), evangelization (evangelicals and Catholics must speak the gospel to everyone, including each other), the common heritage all believers have in Christ, and areas of disagreement requiring further exploration. Although the doctrine of justification has been much debated between Protestants and Catholics over the centuries, signers declared where they stood: "We agree that justification is not earned by any good works or merits of our own; it is entirely God's gift...." They added: "In justification, God, on the basis of Christ's righteousness alone, declares us to be no longer His rebellious enemies, but His forgiven friends, and by virtue of His declaration, it is so." Many areas of disagreement remain, the statement acknowledges. Among the "unresolved" issues: the meaning of baptismal regeneration, the Eucharist, and sacramental grace; historic uses of the language of justification; John Calvin's assertion that although justification is by faith alone, the faith that receives salvation is never alone; such issues as merit, reward, purgatory, indulgences, and Marian devotion; and the possibility of salvation for those who have not been evangelized. The group pledged to examine these questions and called on true believers in Christ to "not allow their differences, however important, to undermine" the truth of their kinship in Christ or prevent them from working together in common causes. ECT II took shape during two years of consultations around the country. A six-member writing committee last March began drafting the statement. On the evangelical side were theologians Timothy George, J. I. Packer of Regent College, and Thomas Oden of Drew University. The Catholics were Richard John Neuhaus of the thoughtful journal First Things, Avery Dulles of Fordham University, and Francis Martin of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. The draft was circulated among a larger number of scholars and leaders on both sides, resulting in "considerable revision" at the committee's final meeting in New York in October, Mr. George said. Not all those who participated in the consultations signed the document. Mr. George said he believes the Catholics who signed did so out of a sincere embrace of justification by faith, and this could lead them to rethink their positions on other doctrines and church teachings: "Rome is moving, but it isn't where we are yet, where justification by faith alone functions throughout our theology." Critics of the new statement claimed it is contradictory and accused the Catholics of hedging. "How can those matters [of purgatory and the like] still be open when the matter of 'faith alone' is settled?" asked Mark Coppenger of Midwestern Baptist Seminary, who was involved in ECT discussions and then declined to sign the statement. R. Albert Mohler Jr. of Southern Baptist Seminary agreed: He blamed the contradictions on differences in the way words are defined. "Catholics and evangelicals don't seem to define faith the same," he said. Nevertheless, with Catholics signing a statement embracing to some extent justification by faith, some dissidents also described the development as "a coup" and "a remarkable feat" for evangelicals. Jesuit Avery Dulles acknowledged in an interview with WORLD that many Catholics are moving closer to evangelicals. In the past 50 years, the Bible has become an open book for many Catholics, he noted. Evangelicals have dominated the U.S. religious broadcasting market, and he agreed this has had significant influence on Catholics. In addition, Mr. Dulles noted, the pro-life movement has brought many Catholics and evangelicals together, and liberalization trends have divided both Protestantism and Catholicism. "Many Catholics are discovering they have far greater affinity with evangelicals on doctrinal issues than with mainline Protestants and even some of our own theologians," he said. As for justification by faith alone and purgatory, Mr. Dulles saw no inconsistency. Purgatory belongs to the realm of sanctification, he said. "All those people in purgatory already have been justified by faith; now they are being cleansed and serving their time." ACE is not so sanguine. In an "open letter of pastoral concern" scheduled for broad release, it says: "If the matter of imputed righteousness remains on the table for further discussion, not to mention purgatory, the matter of indulgences, and the need for human merit of some kind, the Reformation doctrine of justification is not being affirmed in the document, whatever it may claim." The ACE office is at Box 2000, Philadelphia, Pa. 19103. Information and documents can also be accessed at its Web site. The ECT has no office. A copy of its declaration, ECT II, is available in full here on WORLD's Web site

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Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman


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